Counter-trend: Air Force shoots down high-tech UAV in favor of ancient U-2

DoD made decision, Congress added pressure, but Global Hawk killed its own chance at success

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The Pentagon has confirmed plans to stop buying RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude observation drone in favor of the 50-year-old U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane, which sparked at least one nuclear crisis with the Soviet Union, gave its name to an Irish crypto-lyrical rock band and outlived the SR-71 Blackbird built to replace it.

The U-2 also carries a pilot, making it the first Air Force plane to defend its own mission against UAVs that don't risk the lives of pilots and which are usually less expensive to build, buy and operate than piloted planes.

The decision sounds bizarre because it is so rare an exception in a series of huge wins for drones, which now make up more than 30 percent of the aircraft the Air Force flies in war zones.

It sounds almost inevitable when you look at the difficulty both the Pentagon and Congress have had with cost overruns in Global Hawk's development budget, the high maintenance requirements that prevent it from flying as many missions as the U-2 because it's stuck in the hangar for far too long after each mission, and the difficulty in getting it to carry or operate sensors that may be ancient in design but also product the best-quality images available from an American spy plane.

Global Hawk blows its chance to be the next big thing in high-performance spy planes

Global Hawk is designed to have a huge advantage over theU-2 in that it can stay airborne for 24 hours at a time and fly in circles for hours over a target, taking detailed images in visual, radar, heat and other spectra to update crisis situations as they develop.

The Pentagon announced in August that it planned to retire the U-2 and replace it with the Global Hawk, but got hung up on requirements from Congress that it confirm and justify the cost of operating each aircraft and use those costs as part of its decision.

At the time the Air Force's Total Ownership Cost database – listed the U-2 as costing $31,000 per hour to operate compared to $35,000 per hour for the Global Hawk, according to Air Force Times.

The cost of operating UAVs is almost universally considered lower than that of operating planes with pilots. It is expensive to develop anything that can fly as high, as far and collect as detailed imagery as the U-2, however, meaning the Global Hawk can't help be more expensive than drones that operate at lower altitudes and lower resolutions, especially while the bugs are still being worked out.

Photo Credit: 

U.S. Air Force

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